Why Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Posted on December 5th, 2019

The first time Hayley was in my office talking about her marriage, she had a simple question: “Why can’t I leave?”

She had been married to George for more than 25 years. Outwardly their relationship looked good, with equally successful careers, two grown children, and enough money to afford whatever luxuries they desired. But their real closeness had ended years ago, and now they avoided each other in any personal way.

George had been clear with her: “For me, marriage is forever.” This left the decision to stay or go as all Hayley’s, and she wanted to go. 

Hayley had already looked at the fears she had about divorcing. Foremost among them was how it would affect her children, even though they were grown and on their own. She also worried about George collapsing if she divorced him. She knew she shouldn’t feel responsible for him, but she did. Then there were social fears, concerns about what others would think and feeling a failure. Underneath all of this was her fear of being alone. She had not been on her own since she met George in college.

She didn’t like these fears, but she had come to terms with them. They weren’t what was holding her back. So what was?

The answer was what I call the stickiness of what was. It’s responsible for keeping many people in situations they would rather move on from. 

This stickiness results from the way we become who we are, through an accumulation of associations and possessions, of habits and meanings, over years of experience which stick to us as we build a way of life. We become attached to so much, in so many ways, particularly to people. Everything we go through becomes part of who we are. This is a very human quality, and it leads to the fullness of our lives. 

This same stickiness also leads to difficulty when we want to let go of who we have been and move on to a new life. Our intentions and desires may aspire to newness, but to leave a way of life means abandoning who we have been in favor of who we want to be. While this may initially seem exciting, the security of a known identity is very important to us. Throwing out an old pair of shoes is no problem (although many of us balk at even doing that); throwing out a way of life is another story. Who will we be then?

This was Hayley’s difficulty. The way for her to move forward was to develop a clearer sense of who she could become on her own. Without this, even if she managed to divorce George, the stickiness of who she has been would likely lead her into creating a similarly dissatisfying relationship with someone else. She had come to see me to do this work, to unstick herself by learning more about who she was outside of a relationship, to be able to stand more on her own.

Posted in Individual Counseling | Marriage and Couples

Please remember, this is a blog. It is not psychotherapy or treatment of any kind and is not a substitute for the individual treatment you can get from going to see a good therapist.